A recent diktat issued by an over-cautious primary head prohibiting the playing of ‘tag’ at break time came hot on the heels of an open letter signed by over 70 doctors and health ‘experts’ urging the banning of tackling in schoolboy rugby. Both cases, in my view, reveal a long, barely noticed trend in society’s treatment of boys.
In short, masculinity has been the victim of sustained assault over the last several decades, and in no place has this assault been more prevalent, more zealously pursued and more enthusiastically executed, than in our schools.
Competitive sport has been the most obvious casualty – and not just because its benefits stubbornly refuse to be quantified, colour-coded and neatly recorded on some departmental spreadsheet in preparation for the next data-focused Ofsted visit. It’s been neglected and degraded because, according to our self-appointed, Guardian-reading consciences in the upper reaches of the education establishment and, of course, at the NUT, it crudely indulges the very masculine traits of risk-taking, aggression and competitiveness that we should be discouraging. These cause wars, after all.
Okay: so the aforementioned doctors and so-called health ‘experts’ claim that tackling in rugby should be banned to protect pupils from serious injury, as should ‘tag’ at playtime – at least according to the head of Christ the King School in Leeds.
But let’s be honest: reasoning of this kind is often simply a convenient excuse: these are just the latest offensives in a decades-long war being waged against maleness, the last bastion of which resides in a tiny minority of mainly independent schools, stoic in their refusal to deny their male pupils the obvious benefits of taking part in competitive contact sports and games.
Competition in most areas of state-school life is, if not strictly forbidden, then quietly discarded in favour of egalitarian approaches, subtly stripping young boys of a powerful motivational stimulant. Every child ‘must have prizes’, for example; mixed ability classes are widespread; in Key Stage Three, as a result of ‘life after levels’, refusing to grade pupils lest they become competitive and hurt the feelings of those less able is becoming more and more common.
In addition, Physical Education has gone from being a vital part of the school curriculum to an inconvenient add-on – something to combat obesity rather than nurture virtuous attributes like courage, the ability to work in a team, perseverance, competitiveness and resilience. Sadly, chivalry has become a concept to be embarrassed about and recoil from rather than a code to be followed. In most schools in which I’ve worked, games against other schools have been a rarity; as for weekend fixtures, they just don’t happen. Pupils aren’t even expected to do PE in the rain, for heaven’s sake.
Like the mad push to realize a communist utopia, this is yet another example of a fanciful left-wing attempt to change the very essence of human nature and deny reality. And like the push for Kallipolis, all kinds of unforeseen, malign implications arise as a consequence.
Boys, starved of the activities that quell their baser instincts, find other, less productive, less controlled means of fulfilling their needs. They become frustrated, more belligerent in class and, as a result, tend to underperform, especially when compared to girls who of course, in a comparative sense, benefit from the gradual feminisation of the system.
Last year, 73.1 per cent of girls’ GCSE entries were awarded at least a C grade, compared to 64.7 per cent of boys’. I am not for one moment suggesting that this gap is solely the result of boys not being able to pursue competitive and what were once deemed masculine activities. There are other factors involved – not least the long-fought-for emancipation of the fairer sex. But discriminating against boys by preventing them from playing and acting like boys can’t help, either academically, physically or in terms of building character and attributes one might consider virtuous.
It really is time to face up to reality, reject the apprehensions and paternalistic lunacy of a self-important haggle of medical and childhood ‘experts’ and, once again, let boys be boys.
First published on www.conservativehome.com on 18th April 2016